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Monica Lewinsky: From Ruin To Role Model

There are so many people I want to meet. Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Barack Obama, and Elizabeth Warren are all at the top of my list. However, there’s someone else who might not seem as obvious who I would absolutely love to get to know: Monica Lewinsky.

Monica Lewinsky’s name is familiar to almost everyone. She’s a household name for sure, and mostly not in a good way. A huge amount of information about her is available online, and most of America, even most of the world, knows her story.

But how much of her “story” do we all know, really? I wasn’t alive when the Lewinsky scandal surfaced. I have, however, seen articles from websites and old newspapers that revealed the secret affair between 22-year-old Lewinsky and then-President Bill Clinton. Americans learned every detail of the affair, and Lewinsky became an overnight sensation.           

While we know the most intimate details of the scandal, what most Americans don’t know about (or don’t care about) is the extreme personal harm that Lewinsky endured as a result. American citizens hated and demonized her. The media, unsurprisingly, was exceedingly cruel to her, and she received thousands of hate comments, emails, and threatening letters. She was called things like “slut,” “whore,” and “bimbo” every day. Because of the misery she endured, Lewinsky became dangerously depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. It is true that President Clinton’s part in the affair damaged his image during those first few years after the scandal emerged, and led to his impeachment, but now the issue is rarely brought up when his name is mentioned. In fact, many Democrats consider him to be the greatest President of modern times. For Lewinsky on the other hand, her mistake nearly ruined her life.       

For over a decade after the scandal, Lewinsky stayed completely away from politics and turned to a career in fashion. She avoided the public eye and remained quiet, because how could she have done otherwise? She had been turned into an utter laughingstock, the butt of countless mean and sexist jokes. Recently, however, Lewinsky has tried to turn her misery into a catalyst for social change, and has come out as a strong social activist against cyberbullying. She joined Bystander Revolution, an organization dedicated to ending bullying. She gave a talk at the Forbes summit “30 Under 30” describing her agonizing experiences. She even delivered a powerful TED talk about the extremely harmful effects of cyberbullying and why online shaming must stop.         

I think Monica Lewinsky’s real story is so important for everyone to learn. I admire her for remaining strong when most of the world was against her, and for not caving in to the fear, guilt, and depression she felt during those times. I admire her for admitting her mistakes, and for using them to show how the world’s treatment of her during the scandal and its aftermath was unjust. If I ever met her, I’d want to talk to her about all these things, and in particular, the role that sexism and slut-shaming played in her experience.           

I can guess how she’d answer my questions. Sexism played a HUGE role in her story. Lewinsky was labeled a “slut” and was called many other extremely sexist and outdated terms that are reserved for women. On the other hand, Clinton was shamed to a significantly lesser degree and was most definitely never called a slut. That word doesn’t even exist for men. Slut-shaming is an incredibly common—and harmful—phenomenon in our society. The fact that these degrading words have truly become synonymous with Monica Lewinsky’s name—and not with Bill Clinton’s—only emphasizes the intense double standard that exists between men and women.

This double standard can be seen in large-scale examples like the Lewinsky scandal, but it’s also pervasive in our everyday lives. I see frequent examples of slut-shaming in my female teenage community. I’ve witnessed people saying hurtful things about a girl or woman for wearing a crop top, for being assertive with a guy, or even for showing a bra strap. Slut-shaming is so prevalent these days that most of us aren’t even aware we do it. In stark contrast, men don’t experience anywhere near this amount of criticism for similar behaviors. What’s more, most of the negative terms and phrases associated with slut-shaming are seen as inherently feminine, and are hardly ever applied to men. Monica Lewinsky was slut-shamed endlessly, and in the public eye, highlighting this societal double standard. I’m grateful that she’s currently taking on the cyber-bullying issue, but, considering her experiences, I think there’s so much she could also do to address slut-shaming directly.

Monica Lewinsky made a mistake. We all make mistakes in our lifetimes. However, the consequences she suffered were wildly disproportionate to her actions. The sexist responses and slut-shaming she experienced under a microscope mirrors what women everywhere experience on a smaller scale every single day. I look up to Lewinsky for turning her mistakes into a determined effort to prevent others from suffering the same cyberbullying she did. However, there’s still so much work that needs to be done to address the worldwide slut-shaming problem. I know that Monica Lewinsky has more to say, and I hope she uses her powerful voice to speak out against this in the future. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Richmond, Abby. "Monica Lewinsky: From Ruin To Role Model." 4 January 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/monica-lewinsky-from-ruin-to-role-model>.

Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern with whom President Bill Clinton admitted to having had an "inappropriate relationship." She has now reemerged as a social activist against cyberbullying.

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